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Michael Hiltzik: Should Mitt Romney take his Medicare?

It has become something of a tradition for Social Security and Medicare to publicize their benefits for the average American by enlisting celebrity 65-year-olds to enroll with public fanfare. The current star on Social Security’s website: Patty Duke, who turned 65 in December.

The programs probably won’t be asking Mitt Romney for a testimonial. The candidate for the GOP presidential nomination turned 65 on Monday, and promptly let it be known that he won’t be signing up for Medicare.

Romney’s reasoning is murky. He told Fox News that he’s “still very much in the workforce,” but a campaign spokesman suggested that Romney would simply remain on his private insurance plan. The source of his private coverage isn’t known, but it may be retirement coverage from Bain Capital, the private equity firm he ran from 1984 to 1999.

Romney’s decision has Social Security and Medicare advocates -- not to say political pundits -- buzzing. Medicare is hugely popular among retirees. Almost all Americans turning 65 get enrolled automatically in Part A, a largely premium-free hospitalization plan, as part of their Social Security sign-up. In other words, if you’re eligible for Social Security benefits it’s almost impossible not to enroll in Medicare Part A, though nothing stops you from forswearing the filing of claims.

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You can reject Medicare Part B, which is premium-based physicians and medical services coverage, although the longer you wait after you leave the workforce the higher your initial premium. But some 95% of eligible Americans sign up for Part B, and many employers design their retiree coverage around the expectation that the recipients will join.

Romney’s decision therefore places him in a very small minority, chiefly of well-heeled quasi-retirees, membership in which rarefied category Romney shouldn’t be advertising, according to some political commentators. Retiree health coverage is becoming ever harder to come by, as big employers try to roll back their healthcare costs. It’s very hard to find affordable individual insurance as an elderly person -- premiums run many times higher than those for younger enrollees, and many older Americans have pre-existing conditions that frighten away insurers at any price.

Social insurance experts say that by abjuring his coverage, Romney also could be undermining a principle they think is very important -- that Medicare and Social Security are designed to serve all Americans, and that they’re not merely gifts to the needy or unpaid-for “entitlements.” The risk of the latter notion is that it could shrink public support for programs that have been paid for, after all, by their enrollees’ lifelong contributions, and make retirement more costly for the vast majority of Americans.

And the political question is this: Will turning down Medicare become a new litmus test for conservative office-seekers?

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Is Romney giving private equity firms a bad name?

 


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